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Archive for December, 2012

Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Unholy Ghosts’ (Downside Ghosts 01) by Stacia Kane

Synopsis: 

“And the living prayed to their gods and begged for rescue from the armies of the dead, and there was no answer. For there are no gods.” —The Book of Truth, Origins, Article 12

Welcome to a kind of dystopic America with no God or gods but one Church of Real Truth – the only organization that can protect you against ghosts of the deceased which can appear out of nowhere and kill you. Cesaria Putnam also known as Chess is one of the Churchwitches who specializes in debunking – sending unruly ghosts to where they belong, using psychopomps. It is a dangerous job which doesn’t pay well but when you are an orphan coming from a seedy part of Triumph City such a position might be your only hope to survive and to forget; that and drugs of course.

Chess is into drugs big time – she keeps swallowing or sniffing all those Cepts, Nips and Pandas which help her to cope with the ugliness of her everyday life. Small wonder soon enough she becomes dependent on the local drug lord, Bump. Like any thug, Bump has his own plans concerning Chess – he wants to use her supernatural talents in order to open his own private airport which has been supposedly haunted. If Chess manages to tether the unruly ghosts, allegedly appearing at that place, and send them where they belong her debt will be paid in full and she will have a free access to Bump’s drugs. It seems to be a proposition you cannot refuse if you want to do business with Bump any longer.

Chess accompanied by Bump’s scary chief enforcer, Terrible, goes meekly to the said deserted airport only to discover that something more sinister than a ghost might be lurking there – she senses the traces of forbidden, black magic. Will she be strong enough to face it? Will it interfere with her day job? What about her forced deal with another drug lord, a dangerously handsome man called Alex, who doesn’t want Bump to have a private airport? Who can she trust and why Terrible, known for his ruthlessness, is being so kind all of a sudden?

What I liked:

I liked Chess – mainly because she thought and acted like a real, three-dimensional person not like a Disney princess. Yes, she made mistakes, yes, she was addicted to those wretched pills, yes, she lied and cheated and committed so many crimes, mainly against herself but you could understand her and see her problems. Of course you might argue that it was done so many times – a girl with difficult past trying to forget – but I still felt Chess was different, more insecure and edgy. What’s more, despite her blues she was sarcastic most of the time, never whining about her rather grim childhood and her demanding job (unless suffering from withdrawal of course ;p).. For example while dealing with a rich snob in a suburban neighbourhood she thinks to herself:

“If Mrs. Morton would stop verbally jacking off her husband and son, this would all be done so much more quickly but then Chess figured it was just about the only sex the woman got. ”

I really liked Terrible for roughly the same reasons plus a less than pretty face and his vile reputation. Surprisingly his actions and personality, which is being revealed so very slowly and with utmost care by the author, make him a very hot male specimen. That’s rare and it was beautifully done, I only hope it will continue. Of course he and Chess are at the beginning of a very bumpy road to true love, trust, commitment and comprehension but I hope they will reach their destination more or less unscathed.

Now the world building – it was original and clever. One and the only Church which exists and supplants others just because it can deal with the ghost problem is something that makes you think ‘danger’ even if you didn’t know anything else. The quotes from official ‘holly texts’, some funny, some slightly paranoiac, added to the feeling of one big dystopian accident waiting to happen. For example this:

“There is much humanity cannot comprehend. The Church comprehends for you.”


Creepy thought control? Welcome to the brave new world…What’s more the Church is one of the main employers as it hires people to fill a variety of positions. There are Elders, what we nowadays would call spiritual leaders, there are Goodys, some kind of helpers for more menial tasks like secretarial or librarian work, and there are Debunkers who need to be gifted with magical skills. Will anybody dare to fight such an organization? I truly hope so.

What I didn’t like:

The baddies could have been a little bit more complex, not just so relentlessly evil.I do hope the Church will be forced to face a bit of fair competition.

The street slang used by Bump and other Downsiders sometimes grated on my nerves. After a while all those ‘yay’, ‘aye’ ‘dig’ ‘wanna’, ‘watcha’ used indiscriminately in any sentence slowed down my reading and I didn’t want to slow down. Of course you might argue that it was a great language for the world of crime and vice and I agree – it was as dark and nasty as everything in the Downside. Still there were moments when I felt there was too much of it.

Final verdict:

If you are into Urban Fantasy with truly original world building and a dynamic plot  it is one of those books you should read. Add to that gritty, real-life, flawed characters and you get a series which might be addictive.I was very pleasantly surprised how much I liked it and now I want more. Four stars.

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We are growing!

I would like to take this time to welcome in a new reviewer.  Anachronist is not new to the blogging game, putting reviews and more on her wonderful site Portable Pieces of Thoughts.  We are thrilled to have her posting fantasy reviews at Fantasy Review Barn as well.

While no one here is locked into one genre, Anachronist will add a new dimension to the site.  Expect more Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance reviews than before.  Our desire to be a diverse, one-stop review site for all of the speculative fiction genre is closer than ever to becoming reality. 

I would like to thank her personally for joining our small team, and look forward to what she adds to our growing site!  With more idea sharing than ever, expect the site to evolve and improve every day.  As always, thanks to our readers for giving us your time.

Nathan

The Barney Awards – 12 Days of Christmas – Day 6

The Barney for best inter-species sex goes to…

Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold

This is a riot of sci-fi/fantasy fusion, with portals, gods and demi-gods, fey folk, were-beasts, lizardy things, caterpillary things, you name it. Saddest were the fades, who didnt quite make it through a portal. And there’s sex. Lots of sex, everyone having sex with everyone else, furred, scaled or feathered, male, female or hermaphrodite. So if you think mildly graphic lizard/human sex would turn your stomach, this is not the book for you. Beneath the inventive surface is an excellent multi-layered story with a feisty female protagonist, and a nicely humorous writing style.
Full review at Pauline’s other blog here.

The Barney Awards – 12 Days of Christmas – Day 7

The Barney for Best Scrabble Reference goes to…..

‘Gods Behaving Badly’ by Marie Phillips.  Not my usual read, an urban fantasy with romantic elements.  But show me Greek gods in the modern world and I am intrigued.  A tight, mostly light hearted story in which Gods mess with mortals, mess with each other, and almost kill the world.  Geeky, mortal love may be needed to save the day.  Good stuff all around.

Fantasy Review: ‘Thraxas’ by Martin Scott

If I were a more humorous writer I would make an incredibly witty joke about how excited I was to read a new Discworld book when I picked up ‘Thraxas.’  Unfortunately I don’t have anything witty lined up, so I will just move on with the review.

Martin Scott is the pen name for Martin Millar, whose works I have enjoyed for quite a while.  This book is not unknown; it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2000.  But at least for me, it proved to be hard to find until recently released in E-book format.  I was immediately struck by two things; it was very short, and the aforementioned similarities to Discworld.  
Much like Discworld the author takes a trope filled world and bends it slightly. So Thraxas is a private investigator in the city of Turai, a typical fantasy city with all the trappings; criminal guilds, magicians, even a dragon in the zoo.  He is an overweight man, but well aware of it.  He is also a surprising man, still fearsome in a fight and a competent PI.  His major failings are being a bad gambler and a mediocre sorcerer, he can only memorize one major spell at a time (something Pratchett played with early in Discworld and abandoned).  He never turns into the bumbling idiot played for amusement.  His best friend and sometimes body guard is a pretty bikini chainmail wearing girl with orc, elven, and human heritage named Makri.  Of course she wears the bikini chainmail because the bar she works at has a barbarian theme, she wouldn’t be caught dead in it in an actual fight(where she would prefer full body leather armor).  One would expect her to be a possible love interest for our hero Thraxas, but no, she is much more interested in her studies at the university and involvement in a guild for women’s advancement.  
The plot is a fairly interesting mystery tale, with Traxas taking on multiple cases in order to gain enough money to pay off a gambling debt.  Along the way he runs into rogue magicians, top assassins, a princess, and lots of dope dealers.  He pieces together the puzzle, has some adventures, fights a nasty dragon, and runs into an old adversary is a lot tougher than he remembers.  Nothing revolutionary, the author sticks with all the fantasy basics.  This doesn’t affect the book negatively at all, it actually keeps the book moving quickly, no info dumps needed.
The book is incredibly short and moves very quickly.  Compared to later works like ‘Lonely Werewolf Girl’ it is downright simple.  But the short story is entertaining, the humor is subtle, and I hope the next EIGHT books in the series are just as good.
4 stars.  Nothing revolutionary, but highly enjoyable.   
Side note: Despite the Pratchett comparisons I made, the book is even more accessible than Discworld, and the humor is more subtle.  So please don’t think the author was aping Pratchett, his writing style has a unique voice.

The Barney Awards – 12 Days of Christmas – Day 5

The Barney for best monster made entirely from trash goes to……

‘A Madness of Angels’ by Kate Griffin.

With a lot of similarities to Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere,” this is one of the more enjoyable urban fantasy novels I have read.  I felt the book is worth reading for the prologue alone, which even alone would have been short story.  Mathew Swift and the Angels from the title have a relationship completely unique in my reading.  While the first in a series, the book can be read as a stand alone.

Fantasy Review: ‘A Dance of Cloaks’ by David Dalglish

Reviewer’s Note:  I reviewed this book from the self published copy.  It is not reflective of the new book put out by Orbit, which I understand has made some fairly major changes. – Nathan, 8/22/13

‘A Dance of Cloaks’ takes place in a world where it appears well over a third of the population are trained as assassins, or are rich enough to afford them.   Also it would seem that every women is beautiful , though professions are limited to hot ninja assassin(breathtaking beauty a must) or prostitute.  Readers of ‘A Dance of Cloaks’ can expect more redheads than seem humanly possible, rapes and threats of rapes, and a murder rate that puts other GRIMDARK authors to shame.  In the first chapter alone we have an eight year old killing his older brother and a father throwing his daughter into a cold dungeon.  If one wants to know the gist of the review without reading it, no, I would not recommend this book to too many people, unless said people really, really like assassins.

And it is a real shame, the book has some potential.  Taking place within one large city, there is a type of class war brewing.  The Trifect, an alliance of the three richest men of the land are in practice ruling the city.  Standing against them are large gangs of thieves that are being united by Thren Felhorn, the most feared criminal and leader of the largest gang.  There is also a king who seems to have some power, but conveniently not enough to affect the first two groups, and a religious divide in which both sides want to influence but officially stay neutral.  When dealing with the scheming, counter scheming, leads and false leads, and espionage this book is downright interesting.  Anytime a character seems to have the upper hand something shifts.  Thren is built up as something almost invincible for a while, but even he shows flaws.  His son Aaron is an interesting character, though is personality conveniently fits whatever the author wants him to be at the moment, there is some inconsistency in his actions.  I also felt the book had a stronger than average conclusion, I was surprised by how non-clichéd it was in comparison to much of the book.
There was just so much in this book that didn’t work.  As much as the class war interested me, it didn’t pass the logic test.  The criminal guilds seemed to subsist solely on their thieving, which not only supported them but made them major powers.  There were some illusions to protection schemes in the mix, but no major prohibited substances that typically are the base of criminal organizations power base.  Just lots of fear and killing.  Not only were these ‘guilds’ stocked with vicious killers, every one of the killers was unbelievable deadly.  Thrown knifes never missed, usually put right in the throat or eye.  If one of these killers was a female, she was assuredly described as a beauty, with the worst offenders being the faceless, who were more  ninja from a video game than half-way realistic characters.    
The book took a line from the Terry Goodkind guide of bad-guys, with rape being the main threat used on female characters.  An early scene in which a young heiress is about to endure her horror actually has her thinking about how she was going to change her life when she got a chance, not the attack at hand.  Toward the end of the book the narrative is still focused on her mistakes leading up to being kidnapped and attacked.  
My last minor issue was with a drifting POV.  If as a reader I have spent a page following a character and knowing only their thoughts, it is problematic when for one paragraph I get thought bubbles from a second character, only to switch right back to the focus character.  It didn’t happen often, but I always noticed it.
2.5 stars.  Really not much of an outing, but the strength of the conclusion(and the fact that all three books of the trilogy were packaged together on my kindle) means I may give the second book a try sometime.

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